Waves in Wilmington

May 15, 2023


  • The future of abortion rights in North Carolina hangs on Wilmington
  • New Hanover county is steadily shifting towards Democrats
  • State lawmakers from New Hanover have difficult choices coming up


New Hanover County has served as a preeminent battleground county in North Carolina politics for the better part of two decades. The candidate that wins New Hanover typically carries the state of NC or comes extremely close to winning statewide. Election results from the past three election cycles indicate that New Hanover is beginning to move out of the purple column and into the blue column very soon. The leftward trajectory of New Hanover should impact the upcoming decisions of state Senator Michael Lee and state House Representative Ted Davis in their decision whether to uphold Governor Cooper’s veto on Senate Bill 20, the Republican 12-week abortion ban.

Beginning with the 2018 election, Democrats have now won three consecutive marquee federal election races in New Hanover. In what was supposed to be the “red tsunami” of 2022, US Senate candidate Ted Budd received a lower percentage of the vote than former President Trump did in 2020. (See: NC Political Geography, Part 2.) New Hanover has traditionally been better terrain for Democratic candidates running for Governor and Attorney General. Governor Cooper carried New Hanover by a larger margin in 2020 than he did in 2016, and Attorney General Josh Stein won the county in both of his races. Republican legislative candidates like Senator Lee and Representative Davis have been able to win very close elections because of their surgically crafted legislative districts. Despite Cheri Beasley carrying the districts in 2022 occupied by Davis and Lee, both men likely won their respective races by promising not to vote for an abortion ban.

Recent polling conducted by Carolina Forward shows that SB 20 is deeply unpopular with nearly all subgroups. The districts represented by Davis and Lee are a mix of urban and suburban territories. Over 60% of voters identified as urban and suburban in the Carolina Forward poll reject this attempt to ban abortion. Not only do voters in districts like the ones represented by Davis and Lee reject this bill, they stand ready to reject any politician that supports this legislation, including 20% of registered Republicans (see: Voters Reject New Abortion Bans). If New Hanover County is politically reflective of North Carolina as a whole, why would Davis and/or Lee even consider overriding Governor Cooper’s veto?

Like nearly all controversial pieces of legislation in North Carolina, the outcome hangs on future redistricting. The new, hyper-partisan Republican majority of the NC Supreme Court has turned the crayons over to GOP map drawers to do almost anything they want when drawing state legislative districts again this year. Rep. Davis is very likely to have his district adjusted back to what the GOP originally adopted in 2021, but was later changed after the then Democratic-controlled NC Supreme Court ruled the districts as partisan gerrymanders in violation of the North Carolina state Constitution. (This earlier district is shown below.)

In reviewing prior election data for the potential newly crafted gerrymander for Davis, the district has gone from voting for Mitt Romney in 2012 at 61.07% to supporting Donald Trump in 2020 at 53.03%. Davis should be very concerned that even the most surgical gerrymander will not stand up if he breaks his promise to voters about not folding under pressure from Speaker Tim Moore.

Sen. Lee, because of population requirements for senate districts and geography, is likely trapped with minimal room to squeeze in a few GOP friendly precincts into his district. His only way to buck the trend of what is coming is to reflect the will of the people of NC and reject this attempt to ban abortion, which he campaigned against doing.

Abortion, more than almost any other political issue, has demonstrated the ability to electrify and expand on Democrats’ voting coalition. North Carolina missed out on the “blue” election in 2022 that took place in other swing states, in part because there was no abortion legislation sitting in draft at the legislature (publicly, at any rate), and no referenda on the ballot. With the passage of SB 20, North Carolina is about to see its first real post-Dobbs election come 2024. This one issue alone has the potential to generate a wave election scenario in New Hanover that will take down two sitting members of the state legislature should they decide to go against the pro-abortion rights tide.  

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